Just one week after Town Council casino committee chairman Larry Powers and members Craig Mael and Russell Sanford held a very productive meeting about the proposed $1 billion casino/resort complex at Suffolk Downs, the Council and residents discussed the possibility of conducting a non-binding referendum or survey on the Suffolk proposal and its impact on the town of Winthrop.
Mael, the Precinct 4 councilor, ignited the back-and-forth debate (that spilled over into the public comment period) with a motion “to ask the Town Council to discuss the concept of providing the residents of the town of Winthrop with a vote, referendum or other type of forum to express their views on the development of a Suffolk Downs casino.”
Councilor Linda Calla said that she had received correspondences from her constituents about the casino issue.
“When I ran for the Council position, I ran on the platform that I was going to be a voice for my [constituents] which is what I intend to do and I feel if it is the will of the people to ask for a referendum vote, it should be considered but I think we need to make sure we have a funding source for this,” said Calla.
Calla also suggested a casino survey that would be mailed to registered voters in the town, but former Councilor Jeanne Maggio would later state her opposition to that suggestion, noting that she and Calla had previously worked together on a survey for a Council committee.
“When we did a survey, we reached out to every homeowner, apartment dweller, and every citizen, almost 18,000 people – Councilor Calla, do you know how many responses we got back – under 2,000. I think that’s less than you would get if you had a referendum on the ballot. You would get more answers from voters than you would from a survey.”
Maggio’s speech drew applause from the residents in the audience who favor a town-wide referendum.
Guy Brandenstein said he would like to see a casino referendum placed on the ballot in November.
“The November ballots haven’t even been printed,” said Brandenstein. “Why can’t it be added to the ballot? I see no technical reason why it can’t be added.”
During the Council’s discussion, Powers seemed to favor reaching out to residents via a referendum or other means.
“I certainly would echo the comment that we were elected to serve the interests of the people and that’s all the people, both people who are pro and con on the casino issue,” said Powers. “I don’t have a problem with a referendum vote necessarily.”
Powers said a survey could prove to be more effective at gauging the sentiment of a wider group of residents.
Councilor-at-Large Philip Boncore wondered whether there was sufficient time [procedurally] to have the referendum appear on the ballot in November.
“The first we could probably get it on the ballot would be a year from November – unless we spend probably in the vicinity of $15,000 for a special election. I think a survey that goes out to every single registered voter with a return vote card is the smarter way to go.”
Council Vice President Paul Varrone said, “A year from November [for a referendum] may very well be too late. “I’m not opposed to a survey but I would just like to hear more from [Town Clerk] Carla Vitale to when exactly we could have this election or the actual cost of a special election.”
Council President Peter Gill said a survey form might be more effective in garnering a wider response from residents.”
“But again I would love to see it on a ballot, but not a year from November and I wouldn’t want to see a special election that’s going to cost us 10, 15, 20 thousand dollars or more.”
The Council is expected to revisit the casino referendum/survey issue at its Sept. 4 meeting while some residents have expressed the possibility of gathering signatures to force a special election on the matter. Non-binding casino referendums have been held this year in Taunton, Freetown, and Lakeville, with Freetown and Lakeville residents voting against casino proposals.